Friday, January 9, 2015

Lead Pipe III – the Final Chapter - the Malleable History and Etymology of “Lead-Pipe Cinch"

Lead Pipe III – The Final Chapter:
The Malleable History and Etymology of “Lead Pipe” Cinches
Lead Pipe (or tubing)


The idiom, “lead pipe cinch,” denotes a sure thing.  But deciphering the origin of the idiom has been anything but.  In two earlier posts (Horse Racing and Suicide and A Stone-Cold “Lead Pipe” Update), I surveyed early examples of the idiom in print, early stories explaining the purported origin of the idiom, and some educated guesses about how or why “lead pipe” was chosen as an intensifier for a regular-old “cinch.”  The word, “cinch,” comes from Spanish.  It came into English through Western cowboys who learned from Mexican caballeros to secure saddles to their horses using a “cincha” strap.  A “cincha” strap could be tightened by pulling one end of the strap through two rings, securing it with a cinch-knot.  There was no need to secure the strap with a pin through a hole in the strap, as one might with a typical belt buckle.[i]  The word, “cinch,” later came to be used, idiomatically, to mean having a strong hold on something, and eventually came to refer to a sure thing.

A “lead pipe cinch” is attested from as early as July 29, 1888.[ii]  It first emerged in horse racing circles, where a sure bet was a called a “lead pipe cinch.”  A “lead pipe cinch” was thought to be even stronger than an “air tight cinch.”  The imagery of an air-tight cinch is easy to understand.  Since “cinch” means to tighten the strap holding a saddle on a horse, an “air-tight cinch,” suggests cinching tight enough to make it air-tight. 

Purported Origin Stories

A “lead pipe” cinch, however, is more cryptic.  Two early explanations of the idiom’s origin asserted that the expression was inspired by a drowning incident.  The earlier of the two stories, from October 1888, just a few months after the earliest known appearance of the idiom, tells of a burglar who fell into the water when jumping onto a ferry to cross from New Jersey into New York City.  As he flounders, his partner takes bets on how quickly his buddy will drown.  It’s a sure thing that he will drown quickly; he knows that his friend has a section of lead pipe “coiled around his waist.”  The bet was a “lead pipe cinch.”[iii]  In the later story, from 1890, plumber fell from the East River ferry.  He drowned because he was carrying one of the tools of his trade; he had “a coil of lead pipe wrapped around his body,” like a belt or a “cinch.”  The “lead pipe cinch” was too much for him, and he drowned.[iv]

Although both of these explanations sound far-fetched, they both echo details of an actual, widely reported, suicide from several years earlier.  In 1883, a feather merchant named Robert Cunningham purchased several, high-value insurance policies; and then jumped from the East River ferry.  Witnesses commented on how quickly he disappeared beneath the waves.  When they found his body several days later, they discovered why he sank so quickly.  He had a ten pound bar of lead secured to his vest by a length of wire.  A coroner’s inquest failed to rule the drowning a suicide, and the insurance policies apparently paid off.[v] 

Since the drowning happened several years before the idiom is first recorded, it is possible that the suicide could have inspired the idiom.  Perhaps gamblers admired the risk and payoff.  Perhaps he owed them money.  But the lapse of four years between the drowning and the earliest-known appearance of the idiom in print may suggest that the idiom was coined, independently, several years later.  The actual drowning incident may only have inspired the fanciful origin stories, when the new idiom called to mind the earlier, notorious suicide.

Why Lead Pipe?

If the idiom developed independently, unrelated to the drowning, it is not immediately clear how or why a “lead pipe” came to represent a particularly strong “cinch.”  I imagine a “lead pipe” as something that is stiff and rigid, like the stainless steel drain pipes under my kitchen sink; something the lead pipe that Colonel Mustard or Mrs. Plum might have used to bonk Mr. Boddy, on the head, in the billiards room, in the board game Clue (or Cluedo).  The image of using a pipe as a cinch does not ring true.  

Lead also seems to be an unlikely candidate to denote strength.  As metals go, lead is soft, malleable, and easily deformed.  It seems that iron, steel, or any other strong metal or material, would have been more logical choices.  Although lead is presumably stronger than a rope or other strap that might be used as a cinch on a horse, what is it about a lead pipe that would make susceptible to being used as an intensifier for “cinch.”

Ironically, perhaps, it may be lead’s weakness that holds the clue to why it was used to denote a strong cinch. In the late-1800s, lead pipes were sold in coils, much like a coil of rope.  Lead pipes were also freely, and easily, bendable, and could be bent into knots.  It was not beyond reason to imagine using a lead pipe as a strong cinch.  The public perception of the easy malleability of lead pipe is illustrated by a story of a lead-pipe attack gone wrong:

Securing a section of lead pipe, he hid in a doorway, and when a strapping big fellow happened to come along he hit him a terrific blow on the back of his bull neck.  The lead pipe wrapped around the big man’s throat like a scarf, and he walked off with it whistling ‘Annie Laurie.’

Evening Star (Washington DC)September 22, 1899, page 13. 

The form of the idiom is also consistent with the form, “[BLANK] cinch,” where the [BLANK] is replaced by any of a number of other materials that could be used to make a cinch, literally or figuratively.  The strength of a “lead pipe cinch” lies in the fact that lead is stronger than an actual “rope cinch,” or “leather cinch.” A “barbed wire cinch” is another type of strong cinch, and the lowly “string cinch” is just the opposite, a sure loser.

Coils of Lead Pipe

In the late-1800s, lead pipe was not anything like the rigid, stiff, stainless steel pipes under my kitchen sink.  They seem to have been more like the copper tubing in my water supply; the kind of tubing that even I could bend into a pretzel.  Lead pipes were manufactured and sold in coils, not unlike coils of rope.  The practice is spelled out in a patent issued in 1882, for an improvement in the method of manufacturing lead pipes:

In the manufacture of lead pipe it is customary to wind it on a cylindrical drum or reel into bundles or coils in order to put it into convenient for for subsequent handling . . . .

US Patent No. 269651, dated December 26, 1882, to John Farrell, of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

Such “coils” were available for sale in various lengths:

The length of a coil or bundle of lead pipe for ¼ in., 3/8 in., ½ in., and 1 in. pipes is 60 ft.  Sometimes 1 ¼ in. pipe runs 60 ft., but this is too heavy a bundle.  The coil or bundle of 1 ¼ in., 1 ½ in., 1 ¾ in., and 2 in. pipes is 36 feet long.

Philip John Davies, Standard Practical Plumbing: Being a Complete Encyclopaedia for Practical Plumbers and Guide for Architects, Builders, Gas Fitters, Hot Water Fitters, Ironmongers, Lead Burners, Sanitary Engineers, Zinc Workers, London, E. & F.N. Spon, Ltd., 1889, Volume 1, 2d Ed. Revised, page 36.

The ease with which it could be bent was one of the advantages of using lead pipe:

It has this great advantage over cast-iron pipe fitting, that lead pipe, by the skilled plumber, can be bent on the spot exactly as it is wanted.

S. Stevens Hellyer, Lectures on the Science and Art of Sanitary Plumbing, London, B. T. Batsford, 1882, page 63.

Although a certain amount of skill and technique were required to bend larger pipes, smaller “pipes” were easily bent:

Small Pipe Bending.

For small pipes, such as from ½ in. to 1 in. “stout pipe,” you may pull them round without trouble or danger; but for larger sizes, say, from 1 ¼ in. to 2 in., some little care is necessary, even in stout pipes.

Davies, Standard Practical Plumbing, London, E. & F. N. Spon, Ltd., 2d Edition, Revised, 1889, page 96.

Plumbing handbooks from the time include lengthy chapters on techniques for bending pipes.  Plumbing diagrams generally showed how the pipes should be bent in place.  They did not suggest, and the catalogues did not generally supply, pre-bent sections of pipe.  “Lead pipes,” even pipes up to two inches, could be bent into crazy shapes:

Davies, Standard Practical Plumbing, 2d Edition, page100.

Lead pipes had common household uses; being commonly used in water supply and drainage, and gas supply.  Although the dangers of lead poisoning were known in the 1880s, water supply pipes were often lined with copper, or copper alloy, increase the strength of the pipe, and reduce the risk of lead poisoning.  But lead pipes were still used in household drainage systems; they had not yet learned to address the long-term, harmful effects of lead leaching into the environment.  
Lead pipes also had industrial uses.  They were often used as heating coils, or condenser coils, in chemical processes.  They were frequently used in distilling processes for various chemicals, including moonshine.

Weekly Journal-Miner (Prescott, Arizona), June 19, 1918, Page 5.

Lead pipe is still used for various industrial applications; and is still manufactured and sold in coils, and bent to to the desired shape.

Lead pipe coils appear to have been well-known, common, and widely available in the late-1800s.  They were so well-known that both of the early, purported origin stories referred to “coils of lead pipe,” instead of the lead bar and wire that were reported in the original suicide on which those stories were based. 

Lead pipe coils were also common enough to be fodder for stupid jokes:
When a coil of lead pipe in front of a hardware store begins to wiggle and stick out its forked tongue a Dakota man knows it is time to swear off.

Tid-Bits, An Illustrated Weekly for These Times, Volume 4, Number 93, May 22, 1886, page 237.[vi]


Saving the country by putting the Bryan men in power would be like throwing a drowning man a coil of lead pipe for a life preserver.

Potosi Journal (Potosi, Missouri), August 1, 1900, page 1.

A section from a coil of lead pipe was featured prominently in a story about a man who was cheated by the butcher.  The butcher had apparently hidden a small coil of lead pipe inside a turkey, to increase the sale price of a turkey priced for sale by the pound.  A sketch that accompanied the article shows a curved, nearly round, coil of small-diameter “lead pipe” that looks more like a Polska kielbasa than what I normally think of as a section of pipe.

Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, South Carolina), February 18, 1886, page 7.

Coils of lead pipe were so common that an autopsy on one of Barnum’s elephants (Jumbo’s widow, Alice), revealed a “small coil of lead pipe” in her stomach.[vii]  She also had three or four-hundred pennies, part of a jack-knife, and a miscellaneous collection of pebbles in her stomach.  She did not die from eating too much junk; she died in a tragic fire that also took the life of several other elephants, including the famous “white elephant,” Toung Toulong.[viii]

[Blank] Cinch

The syntax of the idiom, “lead pipe cinch,” is consistent with the syntax of other literal, as well as idiomatic, uses of the word cinch; “[BLANK] cinch,” where [BLANK] represents some material from which the actual, or proverbial, cinch is made.  There were actual, “rope cinches” and “leather cinches,” and figurative, “barbed wire cinches.”  I found one reference to a figurative, “string cinch,” which was the opposite of a “lead pipe cinch” – it was a sure loser, or easy mark.  Metaphoric cinches could also be intensified, or strengthened, by cladding, binding, fastening, or riveting the cinch with copper.  The expression, “steel cinch,” also appeared in print on several occasions; often in reference to J. P. Morgan’s monopoly on steel. 

Rope Cinches

When a rope was used to tie, or secure, something, it could be called a “rope cinch”:

Live local from the Home Index: Over 70,000,000 pairs of suspenders were made in the United States last year, yet half the men around here wear a hay-rope cinch to keep the slack[ix] of their trousers out of the mud.

The Morning Call (San Francisco, California), May 20, 1890, page 1.

An effort was then made to start Peeples [(at shortstop)], but he wouldn’t budge.  Several suggestions were offered, such as feeding him dirt, putting a rope cinch on his nose and twisting it, pouring water in his ear and building a fire under him.  None of these remedies, however, were deemed expedient, so a young man named Armstrong, lately signed, was put to work at short, while the other man sat on the bench and sniffled.

The Morning Call (San Francisco, California), June 19, 1891, page 2.

He kept the company of matadors busy every moment of the time for more than a quarter of an hour.  Then he was lassoed head and foot, thrown and a rope cinch tied about him.  A Mexican mounted and rode the animal, the toreadors keeping up the former exercises.

The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, California), September 17, 1895, page 4.

A race with wild steers for mounts is on the program of the Elks’ rodeo at Klamath Falls.  A rope cinch will be used instead of a saddle, and contestants will be allowed a rope-and-tail hold.

Daily Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon), July 4, 1913, page 2.

Leather Cinches

When a band of leather is used to bind, or secure something, it could be called a “leather cinch.”  There are dozens of references to “leather cinches.”  Although most of those references refer to straps used to secure a horse to a saddle, a wagon, or to cargo on the back of the horse, “leather cinches,” could also be used as hat bands and women’s girdles or belts:

I saw one man at church who wore a massive Mexican hat with two or three pounds of silver braid on it, and a leather cinch with two silver buckles for a band.

The Salt Lake Herald, April 19, 1891, page 13.

The Evening World (New York), July 25, 1892, page 2.

Barbed Wire Cinches

The less widely used idiom, “barbed wire cinch,” enjoyed a brief lifespan. 
When Guglielmo Marconi (the inventor of the “wireless” telegraph) lost his fiancé, a clever writer joked:

What does it profit a young inventor to devise a wireless telegraph and lose his girl?  The next time Marconi gets a fiancée he had better put a barbed wire cinch on her.  You can’t hold the modern maiden by the wireless process.

The San Francisco Call, January 29, 1902, page 6.

When a Kentucky politician advocated a two-cent whiskey tax, a reporter speculated:

And it’s a barbed wire cinch that he meant every word of it.

Daily Public Ledger (Maysville, Kentucky), March 27, 1906, page 2.

A candidate for office in Tombstone, Arizona promised:

Now, I won’t ask the cowboys and ranchers to come more than fourteen miles just to vote for me, as, of coarse, I have a barb wire cinch anyhow.

Tombstone Epitaph, September 20, 1908, page 4.

String Cinch

Rope cinches and leather cinches were functional.  Metaphoric “barbed wire” and “lead pipe” cinches were secure.  But the lowly “string cinch” was something less desirable – a sure loser.  The expression appeared in an account of a baseball game involving actors and newspapermen:

Giffen pitched a wonderful game, sending one man to base on balls and striking out a man in the sixth inning.  Smiley was always so busy adjusting his face and his whiskers and his sweater that he never hit the ball and the opposing batter regarded him as a string cinch.

St. Paul Daily Globe (Minnesota), June 26, 1895, page 4.

Since I could only find one example of the expression, “string cinch,” I would not call it an idiom.  But the expression did follow the familiar, “[BLANK] cinch” format, in which [BLANK] is the name of the material used to make the cinch.  It is therefore further evidence that the idiom, “lead pipe cinch,” may have been an allusion to using a length of bendable, lead pipe coil, as a cinch.

Copper Bound/Lined/Fastened/Riveted Cinches

Lining a lead pipe with copper increases the strength of the pipe, while maintaining many of its beneficial characteristics:

A metaphorical cinch could also be strengthened by binding, lining, fastening, riveting, or otherwise strengthening the cinch, with copper:

Lentilhon has a copper-bound cinch bet on Sherrill. 

The Sun (New York), May 9, 1889, page 6.

“I’ve had a good many hard turns in this line,” he said.  “Dead sure things gone wrong!  Copper fastened cinches left at the post! And all that sort of demoralizing business, but an experience I had in Chicago a few years ago beat all else hollow in a long and, by no means, uninteresting career of playing horses.”

Lawrence Democrat (Lawrenceburt, Tennessee), October 2, 1891, page 1:

In race course language, the owners look on it as a copper-lined lead-pipe cinch.”

The Sun (New York), November 22, 1891: page 3,

“The track will be heavy tomorrow, and I’ve got a copper riveted, lead pipe, copyrighted, air tight cinch.  Firenze in the mud – she swims in it – She can make th pace so hot that the track will be dry before she does the first quarter.”

Los Angeles Herald, November 12, 1891, page 10.

Steel Cinches

J. P. Morgan

Rich Uncle Pennybags

In 1901, when J. Pierpont Morgan (the model for the Monopoly mascot, Uncle Pennybags, and grand-father of Real Housewife of New York, Sonja Morgan's, ex-husband) cornered the world steel market, the phrase “steel cinch” came into limited use for a brief period of time.  A cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly show Morgan securing a steel cinch around the world:

The American Monthly Review of Reviews, Vol. 23, No. 135, April 1901, page 416.

The phrase was used again in 1905 when the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire awarded Morgan the “grand cordon of the Osmanli order.”  In this context, the phrase worked on several levels; as a reference to Morgan’s control of the steel industry, and by an oblique reference to rope, which could be used to tie a cinch (“cordon” is the French word for rope):

The important news comes from Constantinople that the sultan has conferred on J. Pierpont Morgan “the grand cordon of the Osmanli order.”  Although there is doubt in the minds of Mr. Morgan’s countrymen as to what sort of thing that grand cordon is, the sultan’s compliment to our eminent fellow-citizen is appreciated at its full value.  It will match nicely with the distinction conferred on Mr. Morgan by the American public – “Grand Commander of the Steel Cinch.”

Los Angeles Herald, May 8, 1905, page 6.

The expression received a more down-home treatment a few years later:

“Gents,” he says, “you’ve hearn what the ‘greement is.  An’ now I wanter say let every gent put up every cent he’s got ‘cause this is a cinch.  You know me an’ you know that when I says I’ve got a cinch I’ve got a real one – a double riveted, reinforced Bessemer steel cinch.”

The San Francisco Call, September 27, 1908, page 12.

Diamond and Double-Diamond Cinches

At about the same time that the idiom, “lead pipe cinch,” came into use on the East Coast, an alternate expression could be heard in the American West, where the idioms, “diamond cinch” and “double-diamond cinch,” was used metaphorically, to describe a having firm grasp on something.  But despite the well-known strength of diamonds, the “diamond” in a “diamond cinch” does not relate to the gemstones, it the diamond-shape described by a portion of a rope used to secure a load on the back of a pack animal.  The “diamond” hitch and “double-diamond” hitch procedures are still in use today. 

The “double-diamond hitch” was in use at least as early as 1872:

With one accord we dismounted, adjusted our cinches, made everything secure about our saddles, put the double-diamond hitch to the pack (a feat which none but Prof. Raymond could perform), after which that pack and that horse were one and the same thing; then we took again our places in the saddle.

The New North-West (Deer Lodge, Montana), June 1, 1872, page 2.

In 1878, “diamond cinch” was used figuratively, in the sense of putting a stop to something by cinching it, as opposed to the later sense of being a sure-thing:

Right here we draw the “diamond cinch” on all this nonsense. – Helena (Mon.) Herald.

The Stark County Democrat (Canton, Ohio), March 28, 1878, page 2.

In 1889, an article about slang included a section explaining the word cinch, and related idioms:

Everybody has heard “cinch” used as the equivalent of a sure thing.  In loading burros or other pack animals of the far West, the packer fastens the burden with ropes, which he ties around the animal’s body with a peculiar knot.  It never works loose, no matter how rough the road.  In Western towns to-day a “diamond” or “double-diamond cinch” expresses a sure thing that cannot possibly fail.  New Yorkers draw the knot somewhat closer, and when they grow emphatic speak of an “air-tight cinch,” frequently abbreviated to “air-tight.”

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Washington), February 26, 1889, page 7.

The phrase was still in idiomatic use in 1894:

For some time past negotiations have been pending and concerted effort made on the part of the Denver and Omaha smelters to gather under their protecting wing the Salt Lake valley smelters, and thus have what is termed in western parlance a “diamond cinch” upon the mine owners and ore purchasers of this section.

Omaha Daily Bee (Nebrask), March 30, 1894, page 1.


In 1888, when the idiom, “lead pipe cinch,” first appeared, lead pipes were sold in coils (like rope), and were freely bendable (like a rope).  It would not have been much of a stretch to imagine wrapping a coil of “lead pipe” around a horse to make a particularly strong cinch.  The format of the idiom (“[BLANK] cinch”) is consistent with format of expressions used to describe actual cinches, like “rope cinches” and “leather cinches.”  The form of the idiom is also consistent with the form of other, less well-known expressions (“barbed wire cinch” and “string cinch”), in which the material being figuratively used for a cinch is more obviously rope-like. 

It is therefore plausible, if not likely, that the expression “lead pipe cinch” originated as an allusion to bending a “lead pipe,” or lead tubing, into a particularly strong cinch.   Although lead is not a particularly strong metal, a lead pipe is certainly stronger than rope, leather and string.

I wouldn’t say it’s a “steel cinch,” although it is at least a “barbed wire cinch.”  It’s certainly more likely than a “string cinch.”

It’s a “lead pipe cinch.”

[i] American Notes and Queries, volume 5, number 17, August 23, 1890, page 197.
[ii] ADS-L (American Dialect Society, Internet discussion group), July 10, 2010 (message by Garson O’Toole, reporting find by Stephen Goranson).  “They considered Lucky Baldwin’s great filly Los Angeles a “lead pipe cinch,” and put their money on at any odds.”  Boston Sunday Globe, page 6, column 2.
[iii] The New York Tribune, Octobe 8, 1888, page 12 (see my earlier post, A Stone-Cold, Lead-Pipe Update).
[iv] Pittsburg Dispatch, April 27, 1890, page 20, column 8 (citing The St. Louis Republic) (see my earlier post, Horseracing and Suicide).
[vi] The allusion to seeing snakes, when drunk, is a precursor to the stereotypical, drunken hallucination, the “Pink Elephant.” See my earlier post, The Colorful History and Etymology of “Pink Elephants.”
[vii] The Doctor, Volume 1, Number 23, November 16, 1887, page 5.
[ix] Note how the reference to the, “slack of their trousers,” hints at the origins of the word, “slacks,” for pants.

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